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Digging Up Soil Health, Profitability with ‘Biotic’ Farming

Brendon Rockey turned to companion cropping, covers, compost applications and livestock to regenerate soils on his potato farm in a dry, arid environment.

For all intents and purposes, Brendon Rockey farms in a desert where native soils have almost zero organic matter and precipitation is infrequent. But as bleak as that may sound, Rockey’s farm is actually thriving and biologically active.

Farming at an elevation of 7,600 feet with only 6 inches of annual precipitation, Rockey has over the last 2 decades built a flourishing “biotic” ecosystem that has improved water-use efficiency and encourages beneficial insects, soil microbes and carbon cycling.

Companion cropping, cover crops and flowering strips have replaced synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides on his 500-acre irrigated farm near Center, Colo., about 140 miles southwest of Denver, where he raises specialty fingerling potatoes, quinoa and certified seed potatoes in a greenhouse.

NO-TILL TAKEAWAYS

  • Flowering mixes inside of or around fields can be an asset for attracting beneficial insects. But you need enough different flower types that bloom at different times to cover the growing season.
  • Cattle can be an asset to a soil health system, but they must still be managed properly. Move them regularly to avoid problems with compaction and give plants a change to recover.
  • Faba bean covers are good for adding nitrogen to the soil and breaking the bond between calcium and phosphorous (P) to make more P available in the soil.

He also grazes others’ livestock in cover-cropped fields and operates an off-site farm packaging warehouse.

Although raising potatoes doesn’t allow him to utilize no-till, he says the overall focus on using cover crops, compost and…

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John-dobberstein2

John Dobberstein

John Dobberstein is senior editor of No-Till Farmer magazine and the e-newsletter Dryland No-TillerHe previously covered agriculture for the Tulsa World and worked for daily newspapers in Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Joseph, Mich. He graduated with a B.A. in journalism and political science from Central Michigan University.

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